< SWITCH ME >
Horse meat is on everyone’s lips these days. Most likely, literally as well as figuratively. The scandal that started in mid-January and seemed like another endearing phase in Romanian-British relations quickly spread across the continent and all the way to Asia.
Countries like France, Sweden, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Norway, Denmark, Holland, Finland, Italy and even China have all reported detecting horse meat in frozen products based on minced beef. Several types of lasagne, tortellini, ravioli and pizza from brands like Findus, Nestle and Picard have been withdrawn from supermarket shelves and tested in laboratories. According to French and British authorities, at least one circuit of meat distribution in Europe identified Romania as the country of origin for the mislabelled horse meat. Another transport seems to have come from Cyprus.
European authorities are now trying to establish whether these cases are connected to one another and were orchestrated by a transnational crime organisation or if they are dealing with isolated frauds.
Whatever the origin of the meat is and regardless of how it was labelled – in Romania or anywhere else along the chain of distribution – there are some facts which cannot be ignored. Horse meat and carcasses do not look like beef or cow carcasses. Even if the meat was packed and shipped as beef, the sanitary authorities in the countries of distribution should have been noticed – and they probably did. For example, the head of the French group Findus, Christophe Guillon, said that the horse meat used in lasagne had a French stamp certifying it was beef. The distributor responsible for this mix-up seems to be Spanghero, also a French company, which applied the stamp. This is not to say Romanian or Cypriot producers and distributors had no role in the scam – they may have very well participated, but it is unlikely that they acted alone.
Romania’s progress in restoring the independence of the justice system and rule of law has received an unexpected endorsement from the European Commission in the Co-operation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) report. The somewhat positive findings follow a disastrous evaluation last July, when Europe raised concerns about Romania’s commitment to democracy during a political scandal leading to constitutional breaches from the country’s political leaders.
The document, written in a milder-than-expected tone and numbering just ten pages, shows slight progress in the fact that the Constitution and the Constitutional Court’s decisions are once again respected by politicians. However, there are still numerous areas which need improvement. The question that arises after the release of the report is whether it will give the Romanian government a push in the right direction, or a reason to slack its duties.
Independence of justice – a long way to go
Judging by the balance of highs and lows presented in the CVM evaluation, Romania is far from succeeding in having the Commission’s monitoring of its judicial system removed. The monitors find there is still significant political pressure on the judicial system, and the independence of judges remains a problem. The report also shows the government failed to apply part of the ten recommendations EC president Jose Manuel Barroso gave Prime Minister Victor Ponta last summer – despite assurances from the latter that they would be implemented. In addition, European Union officials received "numerous reports of intimidation or harassment against individuals working in key judicial and anti-corruption institutions, including personal threats against judges and their families".
Just a few days before the parliamentary elections on December 9th 2012, the Romanian government quietly passed a controversial emergency ordinance reorganising the National Audiovisual Council (CNA). Far from going unnoticed, as Prime Minister Victor Ponta and his social-liberal coalition (USL) would have hoped, the imposed changes have sparked yet another fiery debate between media specialists, politicians and European institutions.
Facing public pressure, Ponta did not publish the ordinance in the Official Monitor of the government, therefore delaying its full implementation. Instead, he re-sent it to the Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Public Finances for "improvements". This doesn’t mean, however, that the matter is closed. Once the two ministries agree on ways to re-write the text, it will be out of anyone’s hands when and in what shape the document will be implemented, or how unexpectedly it will appear in the Official Monitor. The only person holding that decision is Victor Ponta.
One of the most feared changes in the ordinance by the members of the CNA is the one limiting the Council’s power to sanction television and radio stations, as well as programme suppliers, for breaching standards. Presently, the CNA is the only public authority able to take such measures. However, under the new regulations passed by government, any CNA sanction that is contested in a court of law will automatically be suspended until the case is closed – which might take up to two years, considering the length of Romanian court cases. Therefore, the Council would become an advisory body rather than a public authority, and its members would be unable to take effective measures when faced with a breach of standards.
Slavoj Zizek’s new film, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (official website), is meant to be a wake-up call, not a propaganda film. While most things we see on the big screens are idealised, romanticised, stereotypical versions of reality (and especially of morality), the "big problems" eat away at us because public opinion avoids tackling them. This is especially true for Eastern Europe, where years of dictatorial regimes taught the population to not ask too many questions and less than 25 years of democracy haven’t yet produced a particularly opinionated generation. In several short scenes, Zizek, the Slovenian philosopher, film-maker and the protagonist of the movie, uses examples from film, music, history and current events to discuss various ideologies.
One of the fascinating points Zizek makes in the film is how the financial crisis became a source of violent outbursts and protest movements across Europe. He believes Europe no longer faces "an accident", something that can be fixed, but rather is undergoing a structural phenomenon. Crisis has become a way of life, with the poor getting poorer and the rich getting richer until the poor act out. What these protests lack, though he says, is a coherent agenda. Putting it this way, most of the manifestations of protest in Europe, including the Eastern countries, have been nothing but rage episodes or wannabe-copies of what a public manifestation should look like.
And Zizek may have a point. In May 2010, one of the biggest Romanian protests of the past decade took place in Bucharest. Over 30,000 people protested against the Emil Boc government and the austerity measures he had implemented. Far from touching on any violent frustration, the protest turned into what will be remembered as one of the largest-scale dance parties in Eastern Europe. People performed carefully synchronised choreographies on a well-known Romanian party-classic: the Penguin Dance. It’s on YouTube. And thus the grand reason why everyone gathered was forgotten. As Zizek would say, it started out from a spirit of revolt, but wasn’t followed by an actual revolution.
"As citizens, I think we all have an exhausting duty to know what our governments are up to, and it is cowardice or laziness to ask: what can I do about it anyway? Every squeak counts, if only in self-respect." Martha Gellhorn, The Face of War
As the Indian summer of Romania’s political turmoil continues, it is clear the last hope for stability stands in the upcoming parliamentary elections this December. Yet "change" is a funny word for Romanians. No one believes it anymore. Hoping for change is considered naive and inexperienced, and talking about democracy is frowned upon in bitter speeches which ask: "What democracy?" For generations the general discourse in this apathy-hit country has been: "Get real, don’t bother trying to change things. God forbid you might get your hands dirty." However, as grand as it may sound, the country is preparing for its most important elections since 1990. If ever there was a time to think, act, speak up and try to change things, that time is now.
Băsescu the survivor
As expected, President Traian Băsescu is back in his seat following the failure of last July’s referendum. Băsescu is nothing if not a survivor. He might subordinate the justice system and cut pensions, but he will also put on a t-shirt, hold a baby in front of the cameras, and people will buy it. The problem is that this referendum was a close one: although a little over 46 per cent of the registered voters participated, leading it to be declared invalid, 87.5 per cent of that group voted against the president, which adds up to 7.4 million people. If you consider that in 2009, Băsescu was elected for a second term with only 5.23 million votes, it’s safe to say the population doesn’t want Traian Băsescu as president. So why is the country still stuck with him? As Martha Gellhorn would say: "If we cannot blame our leaders (…) we can only blame ourselves."
UPDATE: This story reflects the situation in Romania on Friday, 6th July 2012. President Basescu has now been suspended by Parliament and will face a referendum on the 29th of July. PNL party leader Crin Antonescu is now the president of Romania, at least temporararily. European and American leaders have expressed clear concerns about the political situation in Romania, all of which have been firmly, even rudely, dismissed by prime minister Victor Ponta. Traian Basescu started his election campaign with the theme "Threats to the justice system" and turned to the people, whom he "never lied to" (ahem..), not even when the goin' got tough. Yeah, we're still a weird country...
It may not come as a big surprise that Romania is a pretty weird country. We have more stray dogs and cats than illegal taxis, we don't like to invest in tourism despite its huge potential, and it takes about ten years to complete a highway which then needs repairs after four months. However, after recent political turmoil, Romania may become famous for something much deeper than any of this - the savagery and stupidity of its political class, the trashing of its own Constitution, and, as much of the international media has already noticed, the breach of every democratic principle out there.
In the last two months we have witnessed the impossible becoming possible. Romanians have always believed their country was a place of all possibilities, but Victor Ponta's government and the centre-left wing ruling coalition (along with every other party and politician) took this belief to the next level.
Mr Ponta, the leader of the Social Democratic Party (PSD), was bound not to get along smoothly with President Traian Basescu, who is supported by the Democratic Liberal Party (PDL). President Traian Băsescu had designated Ponta as Prime Minister after the previous incumbant had fallen to a motion of no confidence, but the members of the PSD were hungry - they hadn't been in power since 2004 and President Basescu has done nothing but criticise their wrongdoings, while the justice system (allegedly under orders from the president) has taken many of them to court for corruption. Political vendettas, they say. On the other hand, anyone who remembers the pre-2004 period, when the PSD was in power, refers to it as the "golden age" of corruption, of threats to the freedom of the press, of total control over the justice system. This is why it's almost impossible to visualise a healthy collaboration between the two parties and this is why Romanians can't choose sides today.